Every so often libertarians ask, in a speculative mode, whether the re-establishment of the Ottoman Empire would not be a formula for peace in the troubled Middle East. The question is interesting on several counts, one of which is that the regions affected by the Islamic State today, Arab and Kurdish alike, plus all of southern Iraq, plus Kuwait, plus Jordan and Palestine (including the current Israel), plus, more loosely, all of the Arabian Peninsula, were more or less under Ottoman/Turkish control until the end of World War One.
Libertarians allude to the “millet” system under which many different ethnic or national groups co-habitated peacefully for several centuries. Those are pretty much the same groups that have been eviscerating one another for several years and pretty much every time a strong and dictatorial leader does not clamp down on them. There is one large fault in this happy vision: the attempted genocide of the Armenians begun under full Ottoman power in 1895 and nearly completed as the empire was falling apart during World War One.
The millet system of governance should be of interest to libertarians who generally wish for less government, less expensive government, more responsive government and, especially, less intrusive government. Under the millet system, at least when it was fully functional, the Ottoman governor of say, the province of the empire that now encompasses Lebanon and Western Syria would summon yearly the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. He would address him as follows:
“Your Eminence is well I trust, and his family, and I hope that his sons are brave a wise. I am happy to hear that Almighty God has blessed Your Eminence with many grandchildren. And I am told your community is thriving. Now, based on the figures your office gave me and based on my own information, I think that the Greek Orthodox community must deliver to our master the Sultan, one hundred pounds of gold and three hundred fit young men of military age this year. Agreed? Thank you for your visit and may you and your community, Your Eminence, continue to prosper under the benign, enlightened and fair rule of our great sultan.”
Then, the governor would ask over the main Ayatollah of the Shiite Muslims and deliver himself of a similar oration. And so on.
But I must pause for a confession. The quote marks around the above monologue are metaphorical. I am not reproducing a real monologue. Something like the monologue above must have been delivered thousands of times but I must admit I was not present to hear any of them. (On the other hand, I spent time in Turkey on vacation ten years ago and I regularly drink coffee with Turks. And, I like Turks in general.)
Again, the millet system is a good historical example of extreme decentralization and of minimally intrusive government. It was also very inexpensive to administer. It had little permanent bureaucracy to speak of that could grow upon itself and reproduce itself endlessly thus forever shrinking the area of individual autonomy. At the same time as the comparable Hapsburg Empire was developing a large bureaucracy, at the time when territorially much smaller France was perfecting the art of centralized bureaucracy, at the time when the small Kingdom of Prussia was developing the very model of modern bureaucracy that was to become a model for the whole world, the millet system endured in the Ottoman Empire. In general, the Ottoman government was small and it seemed to be treading lightly on the land, you might say. It sounded a little like a sort of libertarian dream.
But, wait a minute, I need to complete significantly the imaginary monologue of the Ottoman governor above. On parting, the governor would have probably added: “Enjoy life and enrich yourselves. Everything will be fine unless I hear too much about you. If I do, bad things will happen to your community.” Or, he did not even need to utter the words. Everyone knew about the bad things that would happen if disorder arose. Some of these bad things were community leaders’ heads on a spike in village centers.
The Ottoman Empire that relied on the light, non-invasive, decentralized millet system was also famous for the fierceness of its repression. And this haven of diversity disintegrated swiftly throughout the 19th century with a speed that must give pause.
The unraveling of the Ottoman Empire began around 1805 when the large and important Egyptian subdivision gained all but nominal independence through an armed revolt and even waged successful war on the Empire. During the rest of the 19th century, the areas of the Empire now comprising Greece, Bulgaria and Romania decisively seceded. In the meantime, much of the rest of the officially defined Empire drifted away, such as Libya and Tunisia. Later, during World War One, the British (Lawrence) and the French did not have much trouble talking the remaining Arab areas of the empire into open rebellion. And yes, there was an attempted massive genocide of Armenians, in two phases. The first phase was under full Ottoman power in the 1890s; the second, much larger step occurred during the waning days of Ottoman rule starting in 1915.
Now, one can argue – and historians routinely do – that the spectacular disintegration of the Ottoman Empire was due to external pressures from the rising, fast industrializing European powers. Yet, the fact that national (ethnic) entities took up every opportunity to leave the Empire does not speak well of the effectiveness of Ottoman administration. The fact that they sometimes did it a a cost of great bloodshed, the Greeks in particular, does not strengthen the idea of contentment of the administered. The fact is that the subject people of the Ottoman Empire including the many governed through the millet system described above seem to have left as soon as the opportunity arose.
The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire poses a conceptual problem: Did it fall apart in spite of the admirable millet system of government or because of it? Was internal peace maintained in the Empire for a long time because of the virtues of the millet system or because of the ever-present threat of a large and fierce army facing a divided and unarmed populace?
Was the Ottoman Empire taken apart from within, and also from without, because the administrative principles behind the millet system impeded the supply of the means of self-preservation?
Beyond this lies an even graver question for anyone with libertarian aspirations: Do systems of administration that share the main features of the millet system, decentralization, low cost, and low-level invasiveness contain the seeds of their own destruction? Does administrative lightness actually nurture violent intervention from above and/or from outside?
I don’t know the answers to these serious questions. I think libertarians of all feathers don’t discuss these and related issues nearly enough. I suspect libertarian circles harbor their own form of political correctness that paralyzes such essential inquiries. I do what I can. I know it’s not much.